Denise, God, Anita + Me

It’s funny how multi-dimensional memories can be. One can relive a time in their life and see that entire scene as vivid as the day it all took place. The best memories draw you back to the sounds and visuals of a moment, the way something tasted, how you felt about it, what was said, a smell. Often such memories don’t just remind you of what happened, they paint the canvas of your growth, becoming the colors you illuminate and heal the world with. Those soul felt firsts, the bypaths on the roadmap to one’s evolution of self.

Music has always been the pulse of my very existence. My parents are Liberian immigrants who left their native land to come to America for a better life. They held tight to the parts of them no foreign country could ever replace, their heritage. You can imagine how merging both cultures was a sometimes-confusing thing for me to understand. Growing up, I didn’t hear the classics of Motown or the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and the like. Granted, there was no escaping Michael Jackson and Prince, I was born in the ’80s for Pete’s sake. Around my house was always the sound and sonic energy of African music. Percussion melding with tropical string instruments were the blessings that serenaded my childhood. Vocally, these sonnets sprinkled indigenous tongue and village harmonies almost as intricate as the African prints on Mommy’s Lapa dresses. That’s what I knew. It’s all I knew.

The first time I met American music, more specifically Black American music was an almost delightfully inexorable occurrence. Mommy is a lady who worked hard, and she worked often to provide for both of us, as my dad drifted further and further towards his own demons. I know, that’s no way to speak of my one-time step-mother and a bunch of part-time girlfriends whose names I’ve since forgotten, but… Oh well. It was a Sunday morning and Mommy had to work like she had done every other Sunday before. I received a call from her at 9 am to wake me up. She instructed me to get ready because she had asked her friend Denise to take me to church. I believe the order was “look nice and rub lotion so your skin isn’t dry.” Since she had to work, Mommy didn’t want me to miss a text message from the big boss upstairs. As told, I got myself ready, rubbed lotion, got dressed and left our apartment. I was sure to lock the door before sitting outside of 27 School Drive, the building we lived in at the time. After a short while, Denise’s Jungle green ‘95 Pontiac Grand Prix made its way into our parking lot. Every other day her usual playlist was kissed by songs from En Vogue, Toni Braxton and R.Kelly (cringe). That day it was Gospel!

When she arrived, she had a smile on her face which was both hurried, as she was usually late, and loving. Her first words were, “your mother told me to make sure you have your key.” Of course, I had my key. I was a 7-year-old home alone pro at this point. “Did you put on lotion?” Unsurprisingly, Mommy has issued her with the same order as she did me, but Denise was only joking, and I was only mildly embarrassed. She was African-American, dare I say, Black! Anytime around her always felt like a cultural field trip. I would listen in on her conversations with Mommy. Denise would often teach Mommy how to use American slang because of their language differences. Mommy had been in this country since high school, but you know what they say, “You can take the girl out of Africa, but she still likes Fufu.” Only I say that, by the way.

This was the first time it would be just Denise and me. During the short drive to her church, we didn’t speak much but she checked on me often in the back seat. I caught her glances through the rearview mirror. It was just like Mommy would glance at me, and that made me feel safe.

Nobody had ever explained to me the terms and conditions of a Black-American church. I had only been to a few prior for weddings. Our church, although somewhat diverse, was a much more subdued, WASPY brand of Baptist churches. Maybe I should switch out the P for a B and then divide by confused, but just try and keep up! On a normal Sunday, we’d be in and out in less than an hour and a half. That’s including drive time and communion. I did love the treat of grape juice in those little plastic cup things. But In this new environment, they stood on their feet and sang for at least 2-hours before the sermon even began. The Pastor was LOUD and gave a ton of direction. “If you love the Lord, say Amen!” he instructed. Check. “If you know Jesus is working on you, get up on ya feet and tell him, thank you, Father!” came next. Ok. “If ya happy and you know it, scream it to Zion and back!” Fact. “Cha-cha real slow now…” there was more singing! I thought to myself, doesn’t God want us to rest for a bit, maybe have a few ‘Nilla wafers, a Capri Sun, and a nap? It was my first time being in the atmosphere of Black Gospel music. I had seen gospel choirs on television before, sure. And I had heard gospel music on Christian radio countless times, but I had never been packed in a small room, hot with people sweating and dancing in praise while singing to the top of their capacity. I was amazed. It was the very essence of soul to me, and I liked it. I remember hearing Denise sing and being surprised at how beautiful her voice was, seemingly without effort. This beauty was replicated across wooden pews cloaked in royal purple fabric and down aisles of deep burgundy carpet. I thought, wow, all Black women can sing. I think I still feel this way to a certain degree. It was sensory overload, as though the congregation of voices had an aroma, the collective hit like a punch. There was no escaping the grace of that moment.

At the end of service, right around my 18th birthday, Denise surprised me with the news that she would take me with her to run errands and to tend to some business affairs before returning me home. I was ecstatic. What kid, who’s always home alone, wants to go back, sit inside and watch television all day? Being out and about felt like a welcomed excursion. Especially being with someone other than my parents. I was used to all the places my Mommy went. She took me to the grocery store and K-mart, church, McDonald’s every once in a while. There was our bi-weekly trip to the mall and maybe a movie sometimes. I was happy to see which roads Denise would introduce me to, who she knew, and what stores she frequented. This must have been sometime in late summer. I remember because I was already sick of it. Every day just bled into the next. I was always home alone until Mommy would get off of work. With no siblings came no excitement. It’s why this Sunday was so magical.

As we drove around, Denise became more and more uncomfortable with the heat in her small car. It was HOT! Her car only had two windows. After about 25 minutes, she couldn’t take it any longer. Abruptly, she pulled into a gas station with such haste, I imagined we were arriving at a hide-out just in time to escape a police chase. Once parked, she bemoaned in the hot summer sun as she pulled the front seat hatchet, and said to me “ooh, Lord, C’mon!” I was just as hot as her. Without a second thought, I nearly leaped out of the small opening between the driver’s seat and car door; so quickly, I narrowly tripped over her seatbelt. She grabbed my hand and lead the way directly towards the gas station mart. Once inside, she urgently, and I mean urgently, rushed me towards the refrigerated section of the store. She yanked the last cooler door open and allowed the automated breeze to greet her before then pulling out a 20 oz Coca-Cola. She opened it and handed the soda to me as she then grabbed one for herself. She snapped the lid off of her soda and began to drink. I felt protective over Denise because she had been so protective of me. I felt like she was my interim mommy for the afternoon. At that time, I was a recovering tattle-tale. Concerned, I nudged her ever-so-slightly and said, “You’re not allowed to do that,” to which she replied “I’m gon’ pay for it. DRINK!” She winked at me and lifted my Coca-Cola towards my mouth. It was my first time living on the wild side and I liked it. As we made our way to the register, the Gas station attendant did, in fact, say something to her about drinking the soda premature of paying, to which Denise responded in a somewhat dismissive, but charismatic and charming way, as only a Black woman can. She opened her pocketbook, paid the gentleman $5 and told him to keep the change. We both excited as if we had been baptized in the same water that swallowed the Titanic. A cold crisp beverage on a blisteringly hot Sunday will do that to you! Somebody hire me to endorse Coca-Cola, please! Can I be a Gen Y Tyrese? (You’re a real one if you know what I’m referencing…)

What made Denise different from Mommy’s other friends was that she was conversive and hip. She would allow me to ask her questions and she would engage me. Mommy’s African friends always made sure to draw a distinct line between child and adult, but Denise was special in that way. As I returned to my seat in her vehicle and buckled my seatbelt, back to the discomfort caused by the heat of her felt seats against my JC Penny’s suit, I asked her how people at her church could stand so long to sing. She was uncomfortable with the heat in the car now, but she didn’t seem as so during the service, and that room was just as HOT! I really needed answers. As she turned on the engine, mid-response, she immediately stopped and told me to “Shut up!” I was alarmed. I thought I had upset her in some way… Far from it. I watched as her mood softened and her ears began to tingle. I began to hear a voice pour out of her radio, through her car speakers interrupting our discussion. A voice I had never before heard. It was a lingering female tenor whose vocal character was sensual, deep, and enchanting. Every single decision of her singing felt both masculine and feminine. There were pitch changes and arrangements I had yet to encounter prior. And it wasn’t Gospel, or was it? It was Sweet Love by Anita Baker. As I took in this majestic foreign sound, I witnessed Denise slip into the rapture of the moment. Never one to miss out, I shut my damn eyes and fell too – fell totally in love with Ms. Anita Baker.

I’ll never forget how that song struck me. Even to this day, I have a deep emotional connection anytime I hear it. As we arrived back at 27 School drive, I thanked Denise for the day I spent with her. I assume she thought I was just being polite. No surprise there… Mommy had raised me to be courteous, kind and mannered. But I was really thanking her for changing my young life. That Sunday was the day I stopped listening to music and learned to experience it. That Sunday I was introduced to the richness of Black art and I felt like I was a part of it. It was a part of me too. For I had learned to take in those moments when a song is as deep as the moon is bright. That Sunday, different from every other Sunday, Mommy had sent me on a trip with my play-mommy who introduced me to a Spirit mommy. Who says God is a man? That Sunday, unlike every other Sunday, was the day I met a voice so rich, it cradled me as soft and as tender as the hands of my real Mommy; and music, for me, was the never same after that.

Vidale Barsir
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